We’re in the middle of what many call the holiday season – Thanksgiving and Christmas (and Hanukah, Winter Solstice, and other celebrations). Food and common meals are a significant part of these holidays, as well as various others. It’s worth reflecting on how food, sharing meals, and the table play a role in our spirituality.
Humans have a deep seated need to celebrate. Many of our celebrations have nature-based roots and aspects – solstices, harvests or some other agricultural event, or the ending or beginning of a season.
Naturalists of various persuasions, perhaps more than most, appreciate these underlying aspects and find that focusing on them cultivates an awareness of the rhythms of nature and offers a way of understanding what it means to be human and recognizing our inherent place in the ecosystem and the world.
It is difficult to conceive of a holiday or celebration that doesn’t feature food. Feasting and special foods are entwined with human celebration. A shared meal is often one of the highlights and centerpieces of our holiday celebrations. The table sort of becomes something of an altar at which family and friends gathered.
Food symbolizes life, our bounty, a sharing of that which gives life. Group meals from community feasts to dinner parties are indicative, and constitutive of, social bonds and belonging. The sharing of food is one of the most basic and ancient forms of human relationship building.
Further, food connects us with nature and reminds of our dependence on the ecosystem. In fact, many celebrations are associated with particular or seasonal foods, and some holidays even originated as a way of celebrating the harvesting of a specific crop or fruit. Granted, many have become so disconnected from the natural world and where our food comes from. Yet it only requires a brief moment of reflection and recognition to allow food to inform us of our interconnectedness with nature, ecology, and communal efforts at food cultivation.
The sharing of food at table connects us not only to nature, but to each other. It forges bonds, offers a space for sharing and conversation; it’s a very basic human ritual. The table, the context and space for that ritual, becomes a tool for transforming hospitality into community. The table is a conduit to the real experience of the interconnectedness of all things.
The table in this sense becomes a symbol, a core metaphor – and meeting place – for intimate forms of human community – family, friends, loved ones, new acquaintances, and so on. The hospitality of an “open and welcoming” table is essential to building these communities. Who we invite to table matters. The act of eating together can even be subversive and reflect our social justice commitments. Our open hospitality, who we share food with at table, can help erode elitism, racism, and other forms of marginalization.
Sharing a meal at table together is an innately human act. Something very human happens at the table – there’s an intimacy of the table – it’s a face to face, measured encounter. Eating together confirms the sense of belonging, being part of a community.
The table becomes the place where we grow aware of who we are and with whom we are. Memory shapes history – around the table, all previous meals come together in every meal, in an endless succession of memories and associations.
Humans crave face-to-face interaction with others. To foster that personal interaction, we must take some initiative — with some risk. We must leave the safety of our isolation to open our homes to others. We must endure the awkward pauses and bumps that are natural to human discourse and appreciate that friendships and community are powerfully forged in our homes – and especially at the table with food.
We are invited to the table as individuals, but, if we are generous with our food and fellowship, we leave transformed — more connected, less alone — and those connections help transform ourselves, our families, our communities, and, ultimately, our world.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.